A Placid Rebel
He has been protesting ever since he first put his hands on a camera. Sometimes against the narrow-mindedness of a political regime, other times against the obsolete conservatism of the genre, or the limitations of the imaging method he himself pursues. The photographs that are the fruit of this long succession of rebellions constitute the most significant corpus of his oeuvre. Let us catalogue his protests, and by the time we reach the end, the path of his photographic career will be nicely delineated. I promise.
The first traces remain obscured by the mist of the past, but he was six when his brother taught him how to take and develop photos. Whether he was already a rebel then, ask him, I have no information, but soon he was 13 and on 2 November 1956 he and his uncle perambulated his motherland, the Eighth District, taking snapshots of the locations that had just been tormented by revolutionary battles. Every day they had listened to the sound of gunfire and explosions, but when weapons fell silent on the first day of November, they believed it was over and the revolution had won. That was why his parents let him out to take photographs with the Taxona his brother lent him. A few years later he developed 15 of these photographs for a high school classmate, and with the passing of time, somehow forgot about it. Around the same time Haris joined a catholic hiking section that was under constant surveillance by State Security from the 1960s, so it was justified for him to assume after the arrest of some of his mates that sooner or later their house would be searched as well. Therefore, he took precautions by burning all his negatives and prints from the time of the revolution. For some reason, however, they escaped vexation. He later conceded that his fear-borne deed was uncalled-for. But who can tell the future in such taut situations? The story would end here, with acquiescence that along with so many other photographs, these also faded into oblivion, had there not been an exhibition in 2005 in Kolta Gallery, featuring Haris’s photos of Transylvania. Their vernissages being a little out of the ordinary, the author takes part in a public discussion with a moderator of his choice, and this was when Haris recounted the story of his photos of 1956. Within three months, the former classmate showed up with the photographs he had once received. They were miraculously preserved and recovered, but it was not a miracle that the large digital prints made from the small photographs were exhibited on the 50th anniversary of the revolution, in 2006, in Kunsthalle Budapest and Ernst Museum as well as Vienna and Washington.
Let us leap a few years. The next chapter of Haris’s rebellion is dated around 1967. For what else would it qualify when a student of mechanical engineering starts acquainting and befriending contemporary artists all of a sudden? And not just any artists - here are a few names for good measure: Viola Berki, Attila Csáji, Sándor Csutoros, István Demeter, Béla Fekete Nagy, Tihamér Gyarmathy, Béla Kondor, Dezső Korniss, Tamás Lossonczy… I don’t know what happened during these meetings and talks, but it is certain that Haris soon joined the Hungarian avant-garde scene and participated in the legendary Szürenon exhibition of 1969 in Budapest. For younger readers: the group coined its name from the words surreal and nonfigurative in the heyday of social realism, or “socreal”, when any artwork other than those based on the principles dictated by prevailing ideology was at best tolerated, but there were worse cases. This was where Haris exhibited his first independent artwork. Ten years later the group organised an anniversary exhibition. The opening speech was delivered by art historian László Beke. Haris had made a life-size photograph of Beke, recorded the opening speech on tape, and in fact, it was Beke’s photographic image that opened the exhibition, saying that the photograph substitutes reality… Meanwhile, flesh-and-blood Beke was idling next to his image. “Szürenon was an amiable company of autonomous individuals working and thinking together in an artistic collective. The key organiser of the group was Attila Csáji, and it included István Haraszty, Gábor Karátson, Gyula Pauer, Péter Prutkay and Péter Türk - in other words, many of today’s significant artists practically started their career with Szürenon. I was not involved in organising this group, I was invited by Attila Csáji to participate in their exhibition. In the late sixties the young art scene of Budapest was comprised of two large, equally active but different and independent artist collectives: IPARTERV on the one hand, which included, among others, Imre Bak, Miklós Erdély, György Jovánovics, Dezső Korniss, and László Lakner, and Szürenon on the other hand. The two groups did not overlap, but the 1970 exhibition in Building R was organised cooperatively by the two collectives.” (Fotóművészet, 2002. issue 3-4.)
Haris was featured in this collaborative exposition with IPARTERV, as well as in the exhibition of No. 1 Group at the Lion Rock in the Budapest Zoo, together with Kálmán Kecskeméti, László Deák, György Konecsni, András Orvos, György Szemadám and others. Arriving in great numbers at the opening, the audience could see sculptures, paintings, and Haris’s large photograph of 2x1 metres, while delicate noses were disturbed by the pungent lion smell. “There was the No. 1 Group, of which I was also a member. In 1970 (here the artist’s memory fails as the show was in 1971) we had an exhibition at the Zoo where György Szemadám worked as animal attendant. The interior of the lion’s cave, which is practically an artificial rock, was used as junk storage, and we fixed it up. There was no air conditioning whatsoever, it was as clean as we could manage, practically completely unsuitable for an exhibition. But its unsuitability was at once infused with another meaning: that we had an opportunity to intervene.” (Fotóművészet, 2002. issue 3-4.) These exhibitions were primarily comprised of fine art pieces, Haris being the only photographer among them who had tried being part of the official photographic scene as a member of MADOME, the Art Photography Association of Hungarian Workers, but as he revealed, he was bored to death among the photographers who could only discuss their cameras, lenses and other such very important matters. For a long time he avoided gatherings of photographers, in other words, he confined himself to the periphery of the photography scene. However, being a social person, he found his place among artists and filmmakers. This point will resurface as a reference many times later on.
Let us leave Haris rebel on in peace… Of course, we keep an eye on his pursuits. It is 1970 now; this was when his first individual exhibition opened at the hostel of the Budapest Technical University at the junction of Irányi and Budafoki roads. With his large photographic prints of details of paintings by his friends and acquaintances, he surprised part of the audience and the entire profession, who were used to different kinds of photos in these times. This was when Haris found one of the fundamental themes of his oeuvre: he photographed details and produced macro enlargements of the paintings of his fellows (first Attila Csáji, followed by István Demeter, József Molnár V. and later Dezső Korniss). According to Haris this was part of a meditative process, a search among the shapes of an artificial yet autonomously forming scene. I also think it is irrelevant whether a photographer finds the details that interest him in the landscape surrounding him that corresponds to reality in scale, or does the same using a canvas and macro enlargement, reinterpreting the blots of image applied by the painter. After long contemplation, he selected small details a few centimetres in diameter, enlarging them into often one by two metre prints. To him, large size was important, or more precisely, the freedom of the photographer to choose the image size that articulates his piece best. (In these times the average and expected exhibition size of photographs was 30x40 cm.) He made the first close-ups in 1967, and he was confessedly influenced by the photographs of György Lőrinczy, one of the defining figures of Hungarian avant-garde photography, of pieces of goo and frozen shapes, as well as by Csaba Koncz’s icon-like photograms of discarded agricultural tools and objects. “It is fine art and film in which I found the intellectual atmosphere where I feel comfortable, and which I feel is important and should be one’s preoccupation in these times. This is why I rather acquainted myself with fine artists, who became my friends, and these collective influences are now often unavoidable. Imagine an atmosphere where Herbert Read’s books, Modern Painting and Modern Sculpture were passed on secretly as samizdat literature. We were reading Vasarely reproduced with stencils. These were the tangible, real pieces of free intellect. Attila Csáji’s paintings led me to realise that it is worthwhile to photograph paintings. I saw them, understood them, and thought it would also be interesting photographically if I viewed details of them as autonomous images. At that time I was looking for details that had independent meanings in the original piece. Those photos were still slightly independent of me, and they were not a little dependent on Attila Csáji. All this matured into an independent work of art when I found those important details on the paintings, which form a transition between details applied by the painter on the canvas, and those that “came into being”. I was looking for the harmony that is the result of nature and the work of man intervening into nature. I find these, regardless of the painter’s technique, in tiny details of one-two centimetres or smaller. They still bear the human mark, but this is apparently not important. What is important is the creation of harmony from the collaboration of man and nature. I have a photograph from that time, entitled The highest good is like water. This is a quote from Lao Tzu. One of the fundaments of my photography is the infinity of the world; the world is infinite in all directions, upwards and downwards, and you can find what is most important to you everywhere.” (Fotóművészet, 2002. issue 3-4. p. 3-16.)
Let us move on along the way of the rebel! In 1970, he was among the founding members of the Creative Group of the Balatonboglár Chapel Exhibitions (Ferenc Balogh, Attila Csáji, György Galántai, József Magyar, József Molnár V., József Tóth). Not only was he an exhibiting participant of those shows, but also a documenter of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde events of the 70s. “The Balatonboglár Chapel Exhibitions started in 1970. Surprisingly, the first year turned out fantastic. State Security was slow to respond. The first article to attack the exhibition based on directions from above came out as late as 1971, in the people’s weekly, Somogyi Néplap. A journalist called Barna Horányi was commissioned to write about the monstrosities that had taken place there. This article bore the title Illegal Ways of Some Avant-gardes and discussed what a disgrace it was that there had been no jurying and state approval for the exhibits, and how intolerable that was. This article inspired my photograph, and a poster made from it, which was exhibited in Boglár in the next years. I tore the article out of the paper and folded it to show the headline, and jammed it thus into my friend József Molnár’s mouth.” (Interview of Ádám Urbán with Haris, at Urbán’s 2012 Role Models exhib.) This poster was issued much later by Artpool as a commemorative stamp for Balatonboglár. In 1973, he spent the summer again in Balatonboglár, and of course he was present when an armed military unit took over the former chapel and walled up its doors. With a little cynicism one thought that the thing would have run out of steam in a few years anyway, had it not been forcefully shut down. For those devoid of cynicism, let us note that this attack was outrageous and unprecedented even by the standards of the time. “Imagine a theatre show going on, and you suddenly hear engine noise, two trucks climbing up the hill, one full of armed soldiers, the other full of building materials, bricks, lime and sand. As soon as everyone was expelled from the chapel, they literally walled up the door with bricks and mortar. There were artworks. clothes and personal belongings inside. Besides, the chapel had a perfectly lockable and strong grating to protect it.” (Fotóművészet, 2002. issue 3-4.) The working title of his diptych exhibited here on this occasion was Requiem for the Chapel, which got the title Confrontation at the exhibition. He exhibited the fingerprints of Sándor Csutoros and his wife, in two huge enlargements. “I had two adjacent photographs in the shrine of the chapel, 70x100 cm each. Let me tell a story about them: Sándor Csutoros’s wife, dr. Zsuzsa Markó, was the victim of a show trial and had to go to prison around that time. I don’t know if you have heard about the doctors’ trial of Gyöngyös which took place in the mid-60s, as a late, primitive, provincial imitation of the great Soviet Doctor’s plot. Zsuzsa worked as a young neurologist in Gyöngyös. One summer at a house party, one of the nurses got so drunk that she was taken to hospital by ambulance, but there were no free beds except at the psychiatry ward. She had sobered up by morning, dressed up and went home, no big deal. However, two years later a lover or friend of hers, a major at Internal Affairs, who had heard that a Doctor’s plot needed to be arranged in Hungary too, caused an enormous landslide that essentially revealed the moral cesspool Hungarian doctors allegedly lived in. The trial lasted for years and the Supreme Court acquitted the culprits three times. However, the trial was held a fourth time and finally in 1973, they dealt out baffling sentences. The chief physician got 8 years, Zsuzsa as a minor culprit got a year and a half. The photo of the Csutoros’s dyed fingertips was taken a few days after Zsuzsa’s appeal was rejected, a week before she had to move in to the prison. It was exhibited as a wedding photograph, a marital double portrait.” (Fotóművészet, 2002. issue 3-4.) The strings were pulled by the party centre. For those who are interested, and believe they find some random, but really just incidental correspondence in the flow of events, the entire documentation is to be found in György Galántai’s Artpool archive.
Apparently, 1973 was a good year for rebellion. Before the aforementioned Chapel exhibition, in May, Csutoros, József Molnár V. and Haris arranged a staircase show in the quite worn-down staircase of Erkel Street 12 in District 9. This was where Molnár V. lived, and he installed large prints of the letters O and A, while Haris exhibited life-size photographs and Csutoros hung strings of coloured spheres through several storeys. A publication was also issued with 10 inserts. The opening featured a select audience, including, if I remember well, Gyula Pauer, Szemadám, Ottó Mezei and Róbert Kassay. “In 1973 Csutoros, Molnár V. and I decided to secede from the exhibition space, which would probably be shut down shortly anyway. There was a rule in those times that only juried material could be shown at a fine art exhibition. But what was an exhibition? There were specific criteria, such as: an exhibition lasts more than three days. Anything shorter is just a presentation - which we were allowed to organise. It was our principle to do something that would appear as a collective artwork. It should not be about friends, enemies or artists barely tolerating each other showing their works next to one aother, but to fashion the space together in a collective artwork. Actually, there is only a single artwork, the presentation itself, where everyone does what they do best, and everyone speaks the language they can speak without stuttering. Csutoros made a sculpture, Molnár V. made prints and I made photographs, but it was a single work of art. I had photographed the basement door, made a life-size enlargement and pinned it back to the door whence it had been taken. The point was that it depends on you what becomes an artwork in your environment. The picture calls upon you to look around, you are free, anything can become an artwork at your touch. This is also why we were not looking for a gallery space: this door is here, it can be opened. There was another meaning to this thought, that the artwork is not identical to the original, as in reality, lighting conditions are completely different, the sun rises, it runs its course, sets, then the lights are switched on, lights constantly change in the staircase. The photograph, however, has a fixed lighting, and this is how the variable and the constant are confronted. Similarly, I photographed the landing and then the wooden stairs leading to the attic beyond an open door, which I pinned to the closed door, cutting 20 cm wide a strip from the top to make it clear that the door is closed. If you walked through the stations, an opportunity revealed itself, that you could enter the closed door, it all depended on you.” (Fotóművészet, 2002. issue 3-4.)
The third collective exhibition of Csutoros, Molnár and Haris took place at the Thechnical University’s E Club. A theatre spotlight illuminated a black square, on which the blinding circle of light appeared as the symbol of escape, of breaking out. The spheres of Csutoros were filled with varying amounts of water, and so they served as lenses. In Haris’ photo series entitled Blow Up, a man was standing on a hillside, in a 1x1 m enlargement. He took a 20x20 cm detail of this photo and enlarged it further into 1x1 m, revealing a multitude of new information. He then enlarged a 20x20 detail of this other photograph, showing only the face. The image now began to fall apart. The fourth such enlargement showed the right eye of the man, but one could only see clusters of the silver specks forming the image. From the world without towards the world within, from the interpretable towards the uninterpretable, from the visible towards the surmisable… The concept series made a very strange impact, and made a lot of us think a lot of different things. And don’t forget that Antonioni’s Blow Up was playing in cinemas around this time, changing the way many of us thought about photography.
It is far from over. Two years later he conducted his series Sign and Shadow, an action documentation related to land art. He stretched a black rectangular flag of 4.8x1.2 m in front of the rock wall of the quarry on Matthias Hill. This Sign was “confronted” with its constantly changing shadow by the sun running its course from sunrise till sunset: the Sign is eternal, its shadow ever-changing, some regard this, some regard that… The action lasted from 6 AM until 4 PM. The photos were published in the cultural monthly Mozgó Világ. Haris wrote this text to accompany the series:
Sign and Shadow
The Sign hovers above you, motionless.
Its shadow on Earth keeps moving from place to place, time to time.
If you regard the shadow, you learn something about the Sign,
but this knowledge should be constantly altered.
If you regard the Sign, you will learn everything.
In 1975, Csutoros, Molnár and Haris exhibited together again, at the cellar of Vajda Lajos Studio in Szentendre. This was the first public showing of Sign and Shadow.
One of Haris’s most important works is the photographic sequence taken on the date marked by its title, 5. VI. 1975. Its original copy is preserved in the Hungarian National Gallery’s collection. This photo is another rebellion against any prior convention, as practically, he took the same shot 480 times. Notwithstanding, the parts and the whole are equally interesting – both as spectacle and thought. On 5 June, from midnight, he took a photo every 3 minutes for 24 hours from the window of his friend’s flat on Mázsa Square. Tripod, focus set to infinity, same view and focal length. Haris only kept pressing the shutter button. Only? If one has seen the picture, they will certainly remember it… The tableau consists of 480 pieces of 6x9 cm photographs, 20 of which make an hour horizontally in 24 rows, showing the daily routine of the square in front of the building. Haris then reproduced the original tableau on a large format negative, which he would enlarge as a single photograph, mostly in a sequence where he gradually blurs the images until only the alternation of light and dark spots remains. I could keep cataloguing Haris’s rebellious works from this period, testing our patterns of vision and thought, curiously deconstructing, analysing details and reassembling them as new substances, but I only have space for two more. One of these explores the problem of human freedom in an authoritarian regime, while the other agitates against dogmas by provocatively posing the question of “what is art?” As we have seen, and it will not be any different now, the work of László Haris is defined by creating technically exceptionally precise, wrought photographs taking fine art as a point of departure and inspired by cinematic influences. Consequently, swinging back and forth between the frontiers of art, film, animation, photography and graphic design is natural to him. He has this to say about the former of the last two pieces to be discussed: “In the autumn of 1973 – which is an important date, as the Balatonboglár scene was shut down in August – there was an action, resulting, among others, in my photograph Observing the Ape Cage from Above. I am standing on a ladder, photographing with a wide-angle lens a man-sized cage erected in the garden of the poet Mihály Balázsovits’s house in Csepel.” (Fotóművészet, 2002. issue 3-4.) The Cage-action took place one Saturday afternoon, and was attended by the host, Sándor Csutoros sculptor, Ottó Mezei art historian, József Molnár V. graphic artist and László Haris. Everyone told their thoughts, formulated their opinions in words or in artistic deeds about the Cage that was actually as well as abstractly part of our lives. Haris documented his friends’ actions and gestures, and made his own piece, too. That picture was very timely then, and alas, it has not lost a percent of its validity. The last piece I will be discussing is the zero point in my personal Haris-story, as this is where my attention towards him and our acquaintance began. This cluster of images, for it is neither a series, nor a sequence, but a grand tale-telling, is his piece made in collaboration with György Szemadám from around 1973. The hut of field ranger Béla Kecskés was visible from the eighty-something kilometre stone on Highway No. 3. He had built it from found objects and waste from the neighbourhood, with serious skill and artistic taste. He used everything that the people of his time discarded as waste. The house was a fantastic imprint of the age, a Central European Design Terminal of the last third of the 20th century. Word went around about the building, and Haris photographed it. And if I remember well, it was published in the journal Művészet. This was the first photo series of Haris that I had seen, and I even cut it out from the paper, driven by some long forgotten purpose.
From this point onwards came a succession of workplaces, photographer jobs, which were based on Haris’ engineering precision and his thorough technical knowledge of photography, his imaging creativity, but which yielded no important artworks to speak of for his oeuvre. Except, perhaps, for the photographic animation technique he developed, which can be familiar from the animated images of István Orosz’ film Ah, America! or the title sequence of the series Tales Falling from the Sky.
As his last (last?) rebellion, he did photographic work for cultural and political posters between 1982 and 2000 with his then Kecskemét-based graphic artist friends (Krzysztof Ducki, Mária Horváth, István Orosz, Péter Pócs). Do you remember the very agitative, very strongly oppositional posters operating with very strong visual effects around the regime change? Well, most of these were made by them. And I should mention a human rebellion of his, although these photographs hardly fit his oeuvre, which even he concedes. “I very soon discovered that I wasn’t a journalist type. As an excuse I told myself that I empathised too strongly with the subject, and I think about how they could be helped, but this is a trumped-up excuse, as a true journalist is similarly sympathetic to the problem. I am a different person. I had only one exhibition featuring documentary photographs, in December 1989 at the Young Artists’ Club. Its title was And yet the people still move. I photographed political protests, because in the late 80s there were a few years that compelled me to photograph in this manner. I felt that something important was happening.” (Fotóművészet, 2002. issue 3-4.)
And in recent years I have noticed that Haris has forgotten to rebel. Has he grown old? Or everything is so good and perfect that there is nothing to oppose? Who knows? All I see as a photo museologist, is that since then, Haris has been searching, but not really finding his place in photography. He does a lot of things, he is the member of several organisations, he is appointed, awarded, known and acknowledged. But as far as I see, as a visual artist, he has turned back towards his former successful photos, again wondering in the micro-world of paintings, seeking Harmony. He takes nice colour photographs in Transylvania. He presents colour photographs of buildings designed by Károly Kós at his first exhibition in Kolta Gallery, and years later at his second show he displays panoramic photos of himself. This day no further will he rebel… I would be so happy if Laci Haris returned to rebelling in his quiet manner devoid of circus attractions, the profit of which would once again be measurable in artworks!
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